Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) ****
I don’t have a whole lot of patience for horror comedies these days, so when the opportunity arose for me to revisit Killer Klowns from Outer Space, it was with a bit of trepidation that I did so. You see, while I didn’t catch this movie in the theater, I did see it almost immediately upon its release on home video in what was probably the fall of 1988, and I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d seen in ages; frankly, I was afraid that watching it again would spoil my memories of it by bringing to light all manner of annoying defects that my less critical teenaged self wouldn’t have cared about. I needn’t have worried. Killer Klowns from Outer Space holds up in ways that most of its contemporaries don’t even bother dreaming of anymore.
Things get started off right with a spot-on homage/parody of The Blob, which occupies the first third of the film. College boy Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer, of New Year’s Evil and Hardbodies) is up at his dinky town’s hilltop lovers’ lane (known in local parlance as the Top of the World) with his girlfriend, Debbie (Suzanne Snyder, from Night of the Creeps and Return of the Living Dead, Part II), when they see what they think is a shooting star. (These aren’t the most observant kids; shooting stars are rarely tricked out in red and yellow stripes, and they almost never bear any resemblance to flying circus tents.) After a brief interlude in which the scene at the Top of the World is disrupted by the Terenzi brothers (Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi), who are attempting to use their rented ice cream truck (it has a huge, light-up clown head on the roof— and yes, this will be important later) as a scam to score with fat girls, Mike and Debbie drive off to go look for the site of the “meteor’s” landing. Meanwhile, an old farmer (Royal Dano, from Dead People and House II: The Second Story) has also seen the strange object streaking across the sky, and he quickly sets his mind to being the first one on the scene— the better to position himself for financial advantage when all the out-of-towners start flocking to the crash site with their “hot dogs and helicopters and airplanes and tacos.”
And yeah, if you remember The Blob, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen to the old farmer. He’s a bit puzzled to discover a circus big top out in the woods where he expected to find a meteor impact crater, but like apparently everyone else in town, he loves a good circus, and he drops everything to go looking for the entrance to the tent. He never finds it, but he does find an inhumanly ugly seven-foot clown— excuse me, “Klown”— who zaps him with some sort of festive-looking raygun. Mike and Debbie find the big top a short while later, and this time, the door is open. For no reason worthy of the name, the two young lovers step inside, and are amazed by the most un-circus-like construction of the tent’s interior. They find themselves in a long, narrow corridor that rather looks like it was put together out of cast-offs from the set of an early Tim Burton movie, which terminates in an alcove with three oddly designed revolving doors. The first door they try puts them inside what must be the tent’s power center; in a particularly deft design touch, this chamber is a dead ringer for the corresponding part of the alien city in Forbidden Planet. The next door leads to what looks to be some kind of cotton candy warehouse— although, as Debbie points out, nobody stores cotton candy this way! Suddenly, the Klown who shot the farmer enters the room carrying a man-sized mass of cotton candy. The two kids duck behind a row of the peculiar candy-floss loaves, and thus escape detection when the Klown hangs his from one of the other racks. But in hiding, Mike scrapes away part of the outer layer of the loaf hanging beside him, to expose the face of a boy he knows from school! I guess we know what became of that farmer, now, don’t we? Debbie’s screams alert the Klown, who proceeds to chase them out of the tent with a popcorn rifle— as in, a rifle that fires popcorn. Hey, they are clowns, you know. And though Mike and Debbie manage to get away, it looks as though their fleeing may lead the Klowns straight to the nearest population center. They’re scarcely away from the tent when an entire posse of Klowns assembles, and begins following them to town with the help of a bloodhound balloon animal.
If this ever happens to you, don’t bother going to the cops. Even if you know somebody on the force. Our heroes make that mistake now, and are nearly arrested by bitter, teen-hating Officer Curtis Mooney (John Vernon, from Savage Streets and Blue Monkey, who has made a lengthy career out of playing this exact same character again and again and again) before Debbie’s “friend on the force,” Officer Dave Hanson (Deathstalker III: The Warriors from Hell’s John Allen Nelson), intervenes. Hanson, who despite his youth outranks Mooney by dint of his academy training, overrules his gruff colleague, and agrees to at least hear Mike and Debbie out. Sure, Killer Klowns from Outer Space may be a tough load to swallow, but no report of several violent deaths should be taken lightly. Of course, the interstellar big top has vanished by the time Hanson gets there to see it (he took a short detour to drop Debbie— who turns out to be his ex-girlfriend— off at home), and the young cop is oddly incurious about the origin of the gigantic crater the tent’s disappearance has left in the woods. Concluding that Mooney was right, and that it was all just an elaborate prank, Hanson slaps the cuffs on Mike and goes to take him back to the station. But another detour, this time to the Top of the World, changes Hanson’s mind about Mike and Debbie’s story. All the cars on lovers’ lane are empty, and at least one— the jeep belonging to the boy Mike says he saw turned into cotton candy— is practically mummified with strange, sticky, pink fibers...
Of course, by this time, the Klowns have found their way to town, and are imprisoning people in balloons and turning them into cotton candy left and right. Mooney, for his part, has stopped answering phone calls at the station. It is his considered opinion that Mike, Debbie, and their mischievous friends, the Terenzi brothers, have somehow put the entire town up to joining their scheme to make fools of the police. Not even a visit from one of the Klowns is enough to make Mooney rethink his position, but perhaps his death by strangling noisemaker provides him with a glimmer of the truth in his final seconds on Earth. Be that as it may, even Debbie has been taken captive by the time Mike and Dave reach her house, and they are forced to enlist the dubious aid of the Terenzis and their clown-headed ice cream truck to rescue her— and whatever may be left of the town by that point— from the Klowns.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space is an amazing film on any number of levels. First of all, it really is mostly a one-joke movie, but Stephen, Charles, and Edward Chiodo (who wrote and directed this celluloid hallucination) have put so much thought and effort into that joke that it has metastasized into dozens of autonomous mini-jokes. My favorite of these is probably the balloon-animal bloodhounds the Klowns use to track their prey, but the Chiodo brothers have left absolutely no stone unturned in their search for every imaginable trick, from killer shadow-puppets to corrosive projectile pies to the outrageously complex crazy straws the Klowns use to drink the blood of their victims. The Chiodos also display a real flair for riffing on age-old B-movie cliches. In addition to the extremely complicated Blob parallel in the first half-hour, there is a nicely done shower scene, a hilarious set-piece involving bikers, and a deliriously strange sequence in which the Terenzi brothers find themselves dropped into a ball-crawl with two female Klowns. (Pay attention to the one in the silver outfit’s breasts!) There’s even a scene in which one of the characters speculates that the Klowns had visited the Earth in ancient times, and that this previous encounter explains the origin of the present-day conception of the clown! If every maker of horror comedies invested even one-fifth this much creative energy in their work, I would never have become so thoroughly turned off to the things.
Something else the Chiodo brothers invested in Killer Klowns from Outer Space is a startling amount of money. True, this is still definitely a B-picture, but the sets for the interior of the Klowns’ space tent are surprisingly lavish, and it’s obvious that a hell of a lot of work went into the Klown costumes (although the optical effects are mostly pretty weak). This points to the most incredible thing of all about this movie: it was made for a real studio. What possessed the folks at MGM that something like this was worth their while will almost surely remain a mystery for all time, but I’m sure as hell happy that they did. It gives us all reason to hope that the days when novice filmmakers (a look at the Chiodo brothers’ resumes reveals them to be special effects techs first and foremost) with quirky, eccentric ideas could occasionally win the support of Hollywood lasted a little longer than we thought, and even perhaps that they may not quite be over yet.